Playground Bullies In The Workplace

The dramas of childhood – both at home and in the playground - can be replayed later in an adult situation where there is a power imbalance, particularly at work when bullying occurs.

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No baby is born a bully. Bullies are created by their early circumstances.

A bully needs to feel powerful, and to have the ability to make someone else feel inferior to them.

The bully may have once been the victim themselves, and have now switched the drama around to make others feel like they used to feel.

If you've ever been bullied you'll know how dis-empowering it is. That is the intention of the bully - to make someone else feel bad, inadequate, deficient, useless, incompetent, weak, stupid, or unwanted.

These feeling tap into our deeper survival needs and the dread of being outcast, excluded, ridiculed, rejected or abandoned.

When we can't stop the bullying we reinforce our inner sense of a lack of power, and the need to be rescued and protected by someone more powerful – be that a teacher, police officer or business owner/manager.

Is it really bullying?

It has to be said that some people feel bullied when they're not being.

They overlay some behaviour in the present with something from their past that has a similar feel to it.

They may have been bullied as a child and now expect, and even sub-consciously invite, that to happen in the present day. Internalised patterns are played out again.

So just because someone feels bullied doesn't necessarily mean that is what's really going on.

We need to examine the facts and evidence, and to establish an objective perspective.

This becomes all the more useful if the events can also be corroborated by others.

However, a bully will usually hide what they are doing so as to make this evidence-gathering difficult if not impossible.

If they have a 'gang' around them they may be buoyed up by this support, and have an ego-based need to play up to their audience of followers, and thereby bring their bullying out into the open.

If bullying is going on and the victim has never experienced this in their life before, they might doubt their own perceptions and feelings – telling themselves to toughen up, just get on with it, and to stop being weak and feeling vulnerable.

They may not know how to tackle it, and may instead keep taking it until they become overwhelmed, and their work, home life and health is affected.

The dynamics of bullying

The Karpman Triangle (also known as The Drama Triangle) frequently becomes evident in the workplace.

The positions of the Vulnerable Victim – the Powerful Persecutor (Bully) – and the Responsive/Responsible Rescuer can be identified, but often only with hindsight.

Sadly the Rescuer, who should be a line manager or HR department, fails to rescue – and this results in victory for the Persecutor and their supporters.

If a manager/owner over-delegates and loses touch with the workforce as individuals, then this triangle is allowed to flourish and the bully can get their way – resulting in the victim surrendering and resigning.

I've particularly come across this bullying dynamic in cases of self-employed contractors – who lacked the job security, employment rights and care of the company.

I've heard of contractors being overloaded to breaking point, then coldly dismissed. Some of the more securely employed 'full-timers' will only sit by and watch the 'game' being played out with each new 'fresh meat' target.

In my work for Employee Assistance Providers in the past, I often encountered the despair of employees being psychologically and emotionally beaten down by a cruel boss.

Their options were limited and many of these clients just needed their situation to be heard and validated, as they gathered the courage and energy to leave and find alternative employment – in the hope that history wouldn't repeat itself.

In our very brief EAP contracts of work (usually only 4-6 sessions) in this area, I had to sensitively shine a light upon the possibility that the client might be either over-reacting or repeating their own history by setting up the power imbalance and placing themselves once again in the 'underdog' position. 

If this was happening, then further therapeutic mentoring helped to change the old internalised pattern of oppression.

When we know that this inner pattern isn't the case, then the matter becomes clearer, and we can improve the possibility of tackling the bullying problem, and find workable options ahead.

If you witness bullying

If you witness bullying then please empathise with both the bully and the victim – they both have unfulfilled needs.

They were once both children and they may both be replaying or reworking aspects of their past.

Become aware of your role – will you attempt to become a rescuer/supporter or will you align yourself with the persecutor?

If you do nothing, and you fear rocking the boat or turning the bullies attention onto yourself, then you are like a cowardly accomplice.

Instead, allow your empathy and compassion to energise you to support the victim.

Gather evidence and present it (with the victim's agreement) to the bully's more powerful line manager.

If that isn't possible (because the bully is the business owner, or part of an 'elite' club of favoured employees) then offer your help and support to the victim – whilst making your own decision about whether you want to remain working in such a dis-empowering environment.

If you feel bullied...

  • Write down the actual facts, events and conversations – with dates and times.

  • Ask people who are not directly involved or related to the situation, to evaluate whether your written account does constitute bullying in their eyes.

  • Be very clear with yourself about how you feel about the bully and the behaviour you are experiencing.

  • Separate the past from the present – and don't allow your childhood experiences to influence your current perceptions.

  • Find out if others are being treated in the same way – and maybe join forces with them. Beware of being set up as the spokesperson - because the others may then hide behind you or even disappear!

  • Decide what you can do, what your options are – and list the pros and cons for each.

  • Discuss the ongoing situation with your partner/spouse if they are affected by your mood, income and work location (in case you do decide to leave and to find work elsewhere).

If you decide to stay put, then be clear about how you will now assert your physical and emotional boundaries.

Make it known that you are aware of what's happening, and you have your own ideas about why, and that you will get outside help and support if it doesn't stop.

Model a good assertive 'I'm OK You're OK' attitude and behaviour and don't act like a victim or compliant underdog (which can illicit sub-conscious bullying from others - which will probably be out of their immediate awareness).

Don't let your own historical dramas repeat themselves.

If you are being cyber-bullied – by texts, tweets, e-mails etc. then share this quickly with others, and expose the bully for who and what they are – a wounded child with toxic ways of showing their emotional pain.

If you have previously been bullied in school, at home, college or work then talking it through with a competent professional can help to unblock the emotion and tension in your mind and body, and clean up the lens used when focusing upon what's happening in the present time.

I speak as a playground bully myself in junior school, the 'tough' kid that got into fights, the unhappy kid who was playing out the dramas of home upon a weaker classmate.

I'm also aware of the impact of workplace bullying in my own 'former life' in the civil service, and in the workplaces of several of my clients over the last 20 years.

I've had clients who were the bullying and 'bitch' bosses, as well as depleted staff members.

Cycles continue until someone puts a stop to it by exposing the real reasons behind the behaviour.

Bullying takes many forms. We all need to see it for what it is – the maladaptive behaviour of a wounded child who needs to feel powerful at the expense of someone else's happiness.

There's a need for a playground in every workplace – but only one where we all 'play nicely'

Maxine Harley (MSc Psychotherapy) MIND HEALER & MENTOR - Helping you to overcome a troubled childhood and difficult or toxic parents – to heal and re-parent your inner child and make peace with the past. You will find here a page of FREE RESOURCES HERE to get you started.

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Maxine Harley

MIND HEALER & MENTOR - Psychotherapist (MSc), Author, Columnist & Blogger. Please see and, S.E.L.E.C.T. Your Life Company Ltd.

I help women to FEEL better - so they can BE, DO and HAVE better! As a MIND HEALER I specialise in helping women to recover from a troubled childhood and toxic parents, to heal and transcend their emotional wounds, re-parent their inner child, and make peace with their past. This enables and empowers them to become better parents, partners, professionals - and all round happier calmer people :-) As a MENTOR I offer different levels of therapeutic self development - including MINDING YOUR BUSINESS, MINDING THE GAP, and MIND MASTERY...please discover more at